Column: New Urban Meyer, but same old problem
At least they got their stories straight, which is no small accomplishment given the recent histories of both Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
Even as he was introducing the Buckeyes' new head coach Monday, athletic director Gene Smith went out of his way to say their first real conversation about the job was eight days earlier, and Meyer confirmed it a few moments later in response to a follow-up question.
"I got, like, a ridiculous number of letters and emails. You're not talking about that, right?" Meyer said.
As for the rumors and a handful of reports that had the Ohio native and one-time Buckeye assistant pegged for the job soon after Jim Tressel walked away in disgrace last May, Meyer said with a chuckle, "Yeah, but it was some 12-year-old in an Ohio State sweatshirt." Then flexed his muscles to squeeze out a few extra laughs.
If signing the best available coach in the business was that easy — and a reported 6-year, $40-million contract certainly didn't hurt — keeping Meyer on the job until the end of the deal could prove a lot tougher.
He insists he's no longer the control freak who fired off messages to his staff at Florida from a pew in church on some Sundays, nor the perfectionist so consumed by losing that he dropped 20 pounds in little more than a week trying to make sure he didn't lose again. He says he feels great and that the health scare that prompted his decision to retire and then un-retire in the span of 24 hours is behind him, that a year working in the TV booth instead of on the sideline taught him that balancing football, family and fitness was not an impossible act.
At one point, Meyer even reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a contract he negotiated with his wife and kids — "tougher than any contract I've ever signed in my life," is how he put it — to make sure he kept his priorities straight.
"I've been to a place and I don't want to go back," Meyer said.
But in almost the very next breath, he said he intended to start his tenure at Ohio State the same way he did at Florida — and Bowling Green and Utah before that — where Meyer won almost everything in sight and then set his sights even higher. That part was fine, since nobody wins two national championships without being driven. The only thing he plans to change is succumbing to the burnout that caused him to relax his grip on the game once he reached the top.
'When I coached at Florida, I went through some stages. I hope I'm that same guy — not hope — I will be the same guy at the beginning of my tenure and that was a guy that did have balance, that took care of himself. ... I think as it rolled on, we were dealing with some magical things going on there and then, pursuit of perfection.
"I think at the end of the day," he added, almost grudgingly, "we all understand there's no such thing, and I fell victim to that."
Perfection will hardly be a goal early on, but just holding onto the Buckeyes' hard-earned perch in an improving Big Ten might be. Meyer is a wizard at recruiting talent, both players and assistant coaches, and the Buckeyes tradition and deep pockets will afford him plenty of advantages. But until the NCAA weighs in on whether the football program's self-punishment fits the raft of infractions that took place under Tressel, Meyer won't even know how much ground he has to make up. The school proposed two years' probation, the loss of five scholarships over the next three seasons and offered to return $339,000 in bowl money from 2010. A final decision on the matter is due within weeks.
"I think that's where faith and trust has to come in. I have great faith and trust in our athletic director and president," Meyer said.
"That conversation was had and I did a little bit of research. But at the end of day, I had the same question you had: 'Is there anything behind door No. 2, No. 3, No. 4?' And I feel very confident and have great trust that there's not," he added. "We'll have to deal with that scholarship issue and I have great trust that we will and we'll move forward."
During his year on the outside of college football looking in, Meyer said he was troubled by many of the same issues that bothered him at the end of his run at Florida — "trying to cure NCAA issues, agent issues, drug issues."
"I tried to do other people's jobs, maybe to a fault," he conceded.
Yet considering how much funny business went down at Ohio State last season, not to mention the more than two dozen player arrests that marked Meyer's stay at Florida, letting his guard down won't be an option. Given that expectations are the same in Columbus as they are in Gainesville, and that he's starting his new job with close to the same talent level and — at the very least — a few less scholarships, it's tough to see where Meyer is going to find the added time to look after himself. In the midst of that bizarre gone-tomorrow, here-today drama at Florida two years ago, Meyer's close friend, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, talked about what it was like working in the office next to the coach:
"Every single facet of this program, every detail, every player issue, staff issue, game-planning, just an unbelievable amount of preparation, then recruiting — it never ceases," he said. "Is Urban Meyer going to be coaching football when he's 60 doing it the way he's doing it now? No. I knew that when he signed the new contract. ... You can't keep up that kind of pace."
Meyer is only 47 and says he's not that guy anymore.
"I don't want to be a guy that sleeps in the office," he said.
This time we won't have to wait six seasons to find out.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.